Clemson coach Dabo Swinney speaks about coaching vs. his alma mater, Alabama, in the playoffs again. Crimson Tide, Tigers meet in Monday's Sugar Bowl. Rick Bonnell rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney speaks about coaching vs. his alma mater, Alabama, in the playoffs again. Crimson Tide, Tigers meet in Monday's Sugar Bowl. Rick Bonnell rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte Hornets

Dabo Swinney versus Nick Saban: So different, yet so the same

December 31, 2017 09:20 PM

NEW ORLEANS

It’s Thursday morning at Tulane’s football practice facility, the first time Clemson has met in New Orleans in preparation for another playoff matchup with Alabama.

The coach of the defending champion Tigers enters the room, and he has selected the perfect attention-getting prop: A Rastafarian hat, with long, flowing fake hair coming out the back. The players cackle in delight.

Swinney polls the team for the best sight a player encountered on rowdy, bawdy Bourbon Street the night before. Call it the Dabo Way.

“Just a little two minutes before we get to football; just to break it up,” said Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. “A message from Coach Swinney that our guys should have a good time when they’re here, too.”

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Swinney has been known to dance up a storm with his players in celebration of a big victory. That small element of goofy serves as balance in the extended seasons the past two years.

It’s hard to imagine the other coach in Monday’s Clemson-Alabama playoff rematch doing the Electric Slide or the Dougie. Nick Saban is brilliant. He is also unrelentingly dour, college’s version of a man he once worked with in New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Saban and Swinney have dominated college football the past few years. Monday is the rubber match of a trilogy in the College Football Playoffs.

They are so different. Yet so alike.

Same values, different personalities

If you want to deep-drill into what make Saban and Swinney tick, go visit Thad Turnipseed, a man with a name that just sounds so college football in the South.

Turnipseed played football with Swinney at Alabama in the early 1990s. They both ended up working for the athletic department after graduation. Swinney was an assistant coach for the Crimson Tide for five seasons. After getting out of coaching for three years, Swinney was named wide receivers coach at Clemson in 2003.

Turnipseed had various jobs in Alabama’s athletic department for 11 years before joining Swinney at Clemson in 2012. He’s now the Tigers’ director of recruiting and external affairs.

So how would Turnipseed size up the differences and similarities between Saban and Swinney?

“Nick has processes and Dabo has culture, but that does not mean that Nick does not have culture and Dabo does not have processes,” Turnipseed assessed. “Dabo is all about enjoy the moment, living the moment. Nick focuses on what the moment creates at the end: The process and how to get there.”

Turnipseed says that while their personalities contrast, it would be grotesquely inaccurate to view this as Saban, the tyrant micromanager, versus Swinney, the good-time clown.

“They are really more alike than different: Their intelligence, first, and their organizational skills,” Turnipseed said. “Both staffs know exactly where they will be 365 days a year.”

The Saban way

Saban won a national championship at LSU in 2003, then three more (and counting) with Alabama. He arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007 after a forgettable stint as coach of the Miami Dolphins.

Saban might have gone 15-17 in the pros, but those two Dolphins seasons had carryover effect in his approach now.

“Dabo is more of a rah-rah kind of a guy and Nick has more of an NFL mindset, an NFL approach,” said former NFL quarterback Todd Blackledge, who will be color analyst on ESPN’s Sugar Bowl telecast Monday.

In action, that means holding the best players in college football – Alabama collects them by the dozens – to pro-like expectations of precision. Senior center Bradley Bozeman says you conform to that standard, or you won’t prosper.

“He has very high expectations – extremely high. We’re some of the best players out there,” Bozeman said. “It takes a special person to do the things we do. The off-season training, it’s a different animal. When we go, it’s full-throttle, nonstop.”

There is little to no room for error. Saban is a perfectionist looking to surround himself with perfectionists.

“Me and Coach Saban are alike when it comes to things like that: Kind of overcritical, our own biggest critic,” said quarterback Jalen Hurts. “Kind of a perfectionist: Try to do things right all the time, and when you don’t, be able to fix it.”

The Swinney way

When you watch Swinney dancing postgame, or dressing up in a wig, it’s easy to write him off as “Good Time Dabo.”

That sells short how much substance he brings, how meticulous he is. When Swinney first was promoted to head coach on an interim basis in 2008, he had already filled multiple binders with how he envisioned overseeing a top program.

High on that check list: There is a time to laugh and dance, a time to go to work.

“There is definitely a happy medium,” said Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. “Coach Swinney has built a great culture that when it’s time to work, you go to work! You can’t play (around) all the time, but you can’t be uptight all the time, either.”

That culture Renfrow describes includes a heavy dose of focus on the little things. An example: The Victory Walk is a pregame tradition – players and coaches gather together at midfield, and walk to one end zone arm-in-arm.

Early this season, the formation for that ceremony looked more like a “V” than a straight line. So Swinney started videotaping the Victory Walk, to remind the players everything is meeting a standard.

Saban-like, huh?

“It’s grossly wrong to think Dabo is any less of a perfectionist than Nick,” Turnipseed said. “The only difference is (Saban) has more structures in place to make that happen. Dabo is not a micromanager, but he’s on top of everything we do.”

Same priorities, for sure. Just don’t look for Saban to wear that Rastafarian hat-and-wig anytime soon.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell